An organisation born from self-determination in the hustle and bustle of 1970s Redfern, the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT is celebrating over 50 years with a retrospective photo exhibition.

Opening its doors to Redfern in 1970, the Aboriginal Legal Service made history as the first free and community-controlled legal service.

The photo exhibition, Aboriginal Legal Service 50th Anniversary Exhibition, was launched on Friday evening at the Australian Hall in Sydney.

The venue is the site of the Day of Mourning protests on January 26, 1938 and is operated today by the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council.

Speaking at the launch, Aboriginal Legal Service Chair Mark Davies describes the organisation’s movement and milestone as an incredible achievement.

“This movement belongs to each and every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people … it is made stronger by the support of many allies,” he said.

“We are proud of what we have achieved over the years but the work is not done … we need ongoing to support so that we are around for 50 years more.”

Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney spoke at the launch, thanking the service for half a century of dedication and commitment to self-determination

“If you think of 1970, many of you were part of this, some weren’t born, but really the beating heart of Redfern and the self-determination that lives here is because of things like the legal services and medical services,” she said.

“It is really so significant nationally in terms of the development for our people. Across the country people use Aboriginal legal services, the one we are honour today was the first, these places are saving lives.”

“I remember myself as a very young Aboriginal woman moving to Sydney from …Wiradjuri Country and being able to absorb the strength of the organisations like the Aboriginal Legal Service.”

ALS CEO Karly Warner and Chairperson Mark Davies with Linda Burney MP at the exhibition opening on Friday. Photo supplied by the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT.

The exhibit begins with images of the first shopfront from 1970, a product of the campaigning of young activist against police brutality and harassment.

“During this time, our people were blatantly targeted, arrested and charged with nonsense offences like public drunkenness, offensive behaviour and offensive language,” Davies said.

“The ever-present threat of these charges along with a nightly curfew were designed to keep us under the thumb of the police and the state.”

The exhibit pays homage to activists Paul and Isabel Coe, Gary Foley, Billy and Lyn Craigie, Gary Williams, Bronwyn Penrith, Tony Coorey, and James Wedge who noted the everyday realities police discrimination and brutality against of Aboriginal people.

Backed by evidence and lived experience, the group called upon white lawyers, trade unionists and university students for support. This began the ripple of resistance and self-determination in legal representation.

In 2021, the Aboriginal Legal Service has a network of 24 offices across NSW and the ACT. The service continues to provide free support and services in criminal law, family law, children’s care and protection and rental and tenancy advice.

“Our hunger for justice has only grown stronger through the years,” said Aboriginal Legal Service CEO, Karly Warner.

“We continue to build on the legacy of our Elders and pursue that same goal of equitable treatment for Aboriginal peoples and communities.”

The Aboriginal Legal Service has also been a strong leader in advocacy around Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and currently supporting families who have lost loved ones in custody through nine coronial inquests.

“We remain a strong voice for justice and you all know we are not afraid to fight for what is right,” Warner said at the launch.

“We have seen over 470 Aboriginal people die in custody since the Royal Commission in 1991 … This is a tragic reminder that our work could be a matter of life and death.”

In 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Aboriginal Legal Service supplied 70,000 instances of support to Aboriginal people in their jurisdiction and are involved in both the Disability Royal Commission and the justice reinvestment initiative in Bourke NSW – the Maranguka Project.

The service operates alongside other Aboriginal legal services in other states and territories such as the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and falls under the peak body, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS).

The Aboriginal Legal Service 50th Anniversary Exhibition is a free event, open to the public between April 16 and 23.

Whilst tickets are free, booking is required due to COVID-19 regulations.

Register at www.alsnswact.org.au/exhibit.

By Rachael Knowles